PHNOM PENH (Khmer Times) – Despite his jet-black hair, Sam Rainsy turned 66 in March. And it was clear in an interview with Khmer Times this week that the leader of Cambodia’s opposition is mellowing.
It does not take a political scientist to see that when he says: “With age, you become more serene, you think more in the long term.”
What is the “Culture of Dialogue”, the new policy he is forging with Prime Minister Hun Sen, aged 62?
“Before I considered them as enemies, now, I perhaps I see them as adversaries, but in any case, as ‘interlocuteurs,’” he said, using a French word which means “interlocutors” or “negotiating partners”.
Tomorrow, at a special congress of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, Mr. Hun Sen is to be elected party president. Today, Khmer Times offers our readers insights – translated from the French – into the current thinking of the Prime Minister’s chief “interlocuteur”, Mr. Rainsy, president of the Cambodia National Rescue Party.
KT: For several months after the 2013 elections, you remained a fierce opponent of Prime Minister Hun Sen. Now you are engaged with him in a process of dialogue. To get there, which of the two has changed? You or Hun Sen?
Rainsy: “It’s the political situation that has changed and that has led both parties to revise their attitudes. The 2013 elections completely changed the political chessboard. For the first time in the history of Cambodia, we had, for these elections, a united democratic opposition. And there are only two political forces on the scene. And when there are only two parties in a position of strength, they speak more easily. The CPP was led to respect us
because we are strong, much stronger than before, on par with the CPP.
If the elections had really been honest and had actually reflected the will of the Cambodian people, we would have emerged even stronger and the CPP knows it. It can no longer afford to ignore us as before and if there is a problem to solve, it has to talk with us, and vice versa. The CPP also respects us because, when we talk with them, we don’t make personal attacks.
We do not ask anything for ourselves. For this culture of dialogue to work, you must be sincere. You can’t try to pilot the other’s boat. My goal is to help put in place mechanisms and democratic institutions that last for posterity. It is legitimate and I think I share this desire, this conviction with my interlocutors. Before I considered them as enemies, now I see them perhaps as adversaries, but, in any case, as interlocutors. So we may well do positive and constructive things together for posterity. And I think if you look at the age of the leaders – my age, that of Hun Sen – this leads us to change. We no longer have the same ambitions of 20 or even of only 10 years ago. And when I meet Hun Sen, we often refer to posterity, the legacy we are going to leave. With age, you become more serene and you think more of the long term.”
KT: What were the first positive results of this culture of dialogue for you?
Rainsy: “This culture of dialogue leads us to worry about the national interest. For example, we did not think the reform of the electoral commission from the point of view of only the interests of the CNRP. It concerns future elections, in which there will be other parties, other candidates. From the moment that an honest and transparent electoral process is in place, it means that Cambodia is on track. When we negotiate this, it is for the future of the country.
We also solved other problems, such as the status of the opposition. At first. we wanted a shadow government, a shadow cabinet, but Hun Sen did not want it because he feared something seditious. So we took a different system. The important thing for us was that the opposition has a status. Before it was not recognized. Now, we have a Minority Leader, whose status is enshrined in law, in the regulations of the National Assembly.
I have a status with a rank equivalent to that of prime minister. This status is not for Sam Rainsy. But it expresses recognition of the opposition that allows us to engage in a dialogue with the government on an equal footing. This is symbolic, but it makes sense: institutionalizing the opposition and the dialogue.”
KT: This culture of dialogue is criticized by some within your own ranks who say it hampers freedom of criticism of the opposition. Your reaction?
Rainsy: “I acknowledge that I’m ahead of the situation. But I think that, with time, everyone will understand and advance at the same pace. Are we gagged? No. There is a difference between criticizing and insulting. We do not use violent terms and do not throw hatred. But we can get our messages through in a polite way, and it gets even better. The contents stand out better if the container is more appropriate. This is part of the process of democratic maturity. With the culture of dialogue, we open the way for democracy to sink roots. It would be contrary to the spirit of dialogue to kill, eliminate and intimidate opponents, as was the case before. In addition, the dialogue is not only between Hun Sen and Sam Rainsy. It concerns all levels of the two parties, and it rids the country of fear.”
KT: Do you see any shifts in government policy?
Rainsy: “It’s too early to tell. But I see, for example, a noticeable difference on the issue of borders. Before, the Cambodian police forbade us to approach the border markers with Vietnam when we wanted to denounce demarcation problems. Now, there is no problem. During a meeting with an official of the [Communist Party of Vietnam] Central Committee, Hun Sen asked the Vietnamese authorities not to cause violence against Cambodians. It is a form of the culture of dialogue that extends to the border.
In the social area, I suggested to the Prime Minister that we vote a law to regulate rents. In the garment industry, you know that as soon as a rise in wages is announced, the owners raise rents so that workers do not benefit from improving wages. I suggested rents be frozen for two years after the signing of a rental lease so that it is not possible for the owner to evict the tenant. The CPP and CNRP will file all these bills. This will be, in a way, the first child of the culture of dialogue. I will propose another to limit microcredit interest rates which today are strangling peasants. We’ll see if the CPP will follow.”
KT: The NGO law is strongly opposed by civil society. What will be the attitude of the CNRP?
Rainsy: “The culture of dialogue does not mean that we will marry all of the CPP’s views. We have principles and we will defend them. We will oppose the text on NGOs, such as it is. We are opposed to all the controls proposed in the text, all the fussy aspects that are pretexts to prevent many things. We will support the demands of civil society. We will discuss seriously and firmly with the CPP.”
KT: And you think that the culture of dialogue can help find a solution?
Rainsy: “The culture of dialogue is not a panacea and will not solve all problems at once. It is a process to solve problems in a peaceful and democratic way. The authoritarian culture of the CPP will not disappear overnight. In this regard, we will stick to our guns. And ultimately, it is the people who will decide in 2018. From here to the next elections, we will remain firm on a number of principles, concerning human rights, fundamental freedoms, transparency, the fight against corruption, good governance, social justice and the principles of the defense of the public interest. The culture of dialogue is a form of commitment that excludes compromise.”
Mr. Rainsy gives an interview to Khmer Times at CNRP headquarters in Phnom Penh. KT Photo: Fabien Mouret